Australian writer-director Rolf de Heer's The Quiet Room is an effective tour-de-force for a 7-year-old actress named Chloe Ferguson, who spends the greater part of the film not talking -- at least not out loud. At some point before the story starts, she has decided that the most reasonable and just response to her parents' constant bickering is to clam up. They continue to speak to her, alternately solicitous and frustrated, failing to raise a peep, while we in the audience listen to her sometimes surprisingly insightful inner thoughts via voice-over.
It's a fine line between a naturally wise child and a theatrically precocious one, and the interior monologue de Heer has devised for Chloe (her character is unnamed in the film) never crosses over -- she's wholly believable. While some of her observations are very droll for her age -- as when she surmises that the reason her picture books center around animal characters is adults figure human behavior is unsuitable fare for children -- she also has the intractable self-centeredness of a sensitive only child who refuses to understand her parents' attempts to meet her halfway.
"This is difficult for me to say," begins each of the adults at some point in the film, trying to explain to the child why their once happy family has arrived at this sorry state. "No, it isn't," she thinks in turn. "Just don't say it."
It's a sign of the film's subtlety that you barely notice that the fighting of the parents (Celine O'Leary and Paul Blackwell) is of an ordinary kind -- no violence or drunken brawls or even flung crystal, just the usual bitter pettiness that suggests a larger underlying discontent. But seen through the eyes of Chloe, this is cataclysmic. She even has flashbacks to the "good old days," a sad reflex in one so young.
De Heer has made a film about a painful subject that is eminently watchable, due in large part to the preternatural talents of young Ms. Ferguson, who mimes her role with professional ease. It's a sustained and engrossing child's-eye view of adult frailty, with only a flat, tacked-on ending keeping it from being more impressive.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.